Orhan Pamuk and The National on Sadness

“Now, many years later, I understand that this discontent is the basic trait that turns a person into a writer. Patience and toil are not enough: first, we must feel compelled to escape crowds, company, the stuff of ordinary life, and shut ourselves up in a room. […]I would like to see myself as belonging to the tradition of writers who—wherever they are in the world, East or West—cut themselves off from society and shut themselves up in their rooms with their books; this is the starting point of true literature.

The question we writers are asked most often, the favorite question, is: Why do you write? I write because I have an innate need to write. I write because I can’t do normal work as other people do. I write because I want to read books like the ones I write. I write because I am angry at everyone. I write because I love sitting in a room all day writing. I write because I can partake of real life only by changing it….I write because I love the smell of paper, pen, and ink. I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else. I write because it is a habit, a passion. I write because I am afraid of being forgotten. I write because I like the glory and interest that writing brings. I write to be alone. Perhaps I write because I hope to understand why I am so very, very angry at everyone. I write because I like to be read. I write because once I have begun a novel, an essay, a page I want to finish it. I write because everyone expects me to write. I write because I have a childish belief in the immortality of libraries, and in the way my books sit on the shelf. I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words. I write not to tell a story but to compose a story. I write because I wish to escape from the foreboding that there is a place I must go but—as in a dream—can’t quite get to. I write because I have never managed to be happy. I write to be happy.”

–Orhan Pamuk, My Father’s Suitcase, (2006 Nobel Prize acceptance speech)

The German language has a word—sitzfleisch–which translates (somewhat crudely, as it was explained to me) to a talent for sitting on one’s ass for long periods of time. Sitzfleisch is what Pamuk is describing here, the ability to turn inward. There’s a mercy to this figuration. It’s writing as escape, as an approved, safe solipsism. The task itself it is to turn away and hide from the world, from the day, the outdoors, from people and love and logistics and all life’s other petty concerns. All of those of us who write write at least sometimes or to some degree for this reason. We long to soak in an entirely antisocial impulse as though in a luxuriously warm bath. Pamuk writes about it beautifully, and the essay feels like a blessing: Turn away. Go inside. Draw the curtains. You’re doing the right thing. It’s your job. It’s your only job. What a glorious excuse. This luxury is what we feel when we don’t answer the phone, don’t leave our room, don’t touch or speak to or argue with anyone for days, and tell ourselves such circumstances are necessary. Writing becomes a permission to isolate oneself: Nothing matters but your own genius. It’s almost art as revenge. The world may deny you happiness, but you’re allowed to turn away from the world because your work demands isolation.

But to equate writing with an emotional state on any basic definitive level is, of course, dangerous. Pamuk ostensibly speaks in the singular first person—not why everyone writes or what a writer is, but merely why he writes. There’s a reason, however, that his first person pronouncements resound on a wider level. He’s expressing an archetype as ancient as it is seductive: The artist compelled to art by an overwhelming sadness. Sadness and art, sadness and writing, sadness and genius, fuse. Sadness is not circumstance but prerequisite. Sadness points at a kind of ability and superiority. Whether Pamuk merely describes himself, his speech is meant to give a wider permission.

It’s stunningly simple, too: Of course we want the things that don’t feel good (sadness) to yield some reward (art). This is another version of the promise that feeling bad makes us better people, or that suffering yields learning. In all of these depictions, suffering is a stamp of legitimacy. It is seductive—writing as legitimization of sadness and at the same time a free cure for it. It is seductive but it is ultimately wildly irresponsible to portray writing this way, as such a utility, as such a process. Writing’s selfish, interior utilities should be secondary and perhaps—though our impulse is and will probably always be much the opposite—secret. To put it very simply, we should be generous enough to give our audience writing about something other than what a hard time we’re having writing.

Really, though, I’m thinking about Pamuk’s assertion that he’s never managed to be happy because a couple weeks ago the National put out the album ‘High Violet,’ a stunning work of complete unhappiness. I would bet money that Matt Beringer has never managed to be happy, and I couldn’t have less of a problem with that. I hope the National never feel better about whatever it is they feel bad about. On High Violet, as in The Smiths’-from whom the National inherit self-pity as though it were a signed guitar-best work, sorrow becomes an almost erotic, or at least tactile, luxury. Music is especially good at equating sorrow with beauty, as though one could not breathe without the other. But the album, at second glance, is not so simple as a long soak in unrelieved sorrow.

By making sorrow beautiful we also make it far less real. We wouldn’t experience sorrow as beautiful except that we have been taught to by a cultural history’s worth of art and writing that sadness is as exquisite as brushstrokes and perfect grammar. The experience of unhappiness therefore becomes both more callous and more bearable. If you’re thinking about how to make art out of whatever terrible thing just happened, then you’re not truly devastated. You’re at least partly safe, somehow removed.

The addictive quality of the National’s music is in its flippant, wallowing, self-conscious sadness. Even their songs about love and comfort and pleasant things take place in a mode of despair. However, they seem sublimely, excruciatingly aware that despair exists to as material to be used in music. The fact that they’re aware of wallowing means they aren’t actually wallowing, and saves them from the kind of supposedly legitimized self-pity in which lesser bands in the same style continually drown. The National, therefore, demonstrate how better to navigate the kind of seductive sad-artist pose that Pamuk offers. High Violet is at once a sincere expression of sadness and a critique, nearly a satire, of sadness as an addictive pose.